By Salisu Suleiman
Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan casts his ballot in his home village of Otuoke, Bayelsa State. April 2011, Reuters/Joseph Penney
Who gets what, when and how in Nigeria is largely determined by who gets into what position, when and how. From an over-bearing presidency, powerful state governors and other positions – being in any public office (unfortunately) provides almost unfettered access to the public treasury. It is little wonder that the allure of public office is so difficult to resist, even for apolitical citizens, as many have found to their cost.
We probably all know people who had vowed never to have anything to do with politics, whose mantra was ‘politics is a dirty game’. Others would say ‘I’m not cut out for politics’; ‘I do not want my parents to be insulted by thugs’; ‘I need to protect my family from the public’ and ‘unless things change, I’ll never join politics’.
That is, until they fall for the black art of political entrapment.
Just when you assume you’ve heard the definitive ‘Nigerian politics is not for me’, you see many of them not only jump fully into politics, but go about it in the wrong way. Many have destroyed themselves in the process, while lucky ones escape with mere financial ruin. The most unfortunate part is when they continue to insist they won or can win elections that the rest of the world knows they stand no chance.
When you find previously apolitical individuals not only in the possessed grip of partisan politics, but funding clearly doomed (except to themselves) campaigns and wasting the fortunes they had so carefully made in other professions and businesses, you can be sure that they have become ‘politically entrapped’. At that point, they are usually beyond reprieve, and like a runway locomotive, only bankruptcy or a similar catastrophe will bring them back to their senses. By which time of course, many of them would have lost vast fortunes on hopeless political expeditions.
How is it that perfectly sane and dependable people become so blind to reality once they are politically entrapped? What informs the sudden change in attitude to politics? It happens quietly.
They might see the previously wretched friend they had sponsored to electoral victory now inordinately wealthy; a former colleague who, with nowhere else to go, had joined politics and now heads a powerful federal agency; a sacked employee who had found herself at the right place and right time and is now an ambassador; a former tenant who had become a legislator is now buying up entire neighbourhoods; a store-clerk convicted of theft who became a state governor; a tired university lecturer now a powerful minister. . .
At first, they try to resist. They tell people that those in politics have failed elsewhere. They explain that the calibre of people in politics – and the poor judgments they exhibit in managing public affairs – justifies their stance. But when they are regularly shoved aside by the siren-blaring convoys of former subordinates and have to wait for several hours just to see former colleagues now in government; when known thugs and ‘area boys’ now make public policies for everyone; when that local crook is now a multibillionaire . . .
That is when our apolitical friends think they can do better. And so the stage is set for their political entrapment. Like vultures, the ‘trappers’ wait patiently and read the victims’ moods. At the right time, they drop in. The initial messages are delicately conveyed: “If we had people like you in power, things would be different”. Sometime later, imaginary pressure groups would send them to ‘convey their support’ should they ever consider running for office. After some time, it becomes, “if you really cared about this country/ state/ constituency/ it is your duty to run”. From nowhere, their posters flood everywhere.
The resolve to keep away from politics weakens further. They begin to imagine that they’re actually very popular and can easily take over that government house, senatorial zone, position or House seat. More delegations come to pressure them into running for office, saying, “It is your ‘destiny’ to save your people”. Once they believe that (as they usually do), their journeys to ruination has started.
Suddenly, from ‘I’m not a politician’ they now claim not to be running for office not for personal gain, but to serve the public. In most cases, the ‘trappers’, with calculated resilience, will continue to provide imaginary reports on the ‘huge impact’ and ‘vast armies of supporters’ waiting to vote, all the while asking for more and more money. Some candidates – if they make it that far – sell everything they have to facilitate their ‘guaranteed’ victory at the polls.
Not many of them survive their devastating losses on election day.
It seems Plato had Nigeria in mind when he wrote ‘one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors’. However, as the political space opens up in Nigeria, it is important to engage in the political process, but only in the right way, at the right time and for the right reasons.
This article was originally published on the author's blog.